THE DVD SHELF: "Hazel," "The Loved One" and "Beyond the Fringe"

The DVD Shelf   THE DVD SHELF: "Hazel," "The Loved One" and "Beyond the Fringe" This month’s column discusses Shirley Booth’s sitcom "Hazel," a group of so-called cult comedies from the 1960s (including Bobby Morse in Tony Richardson’s "The Loved One") and — from Alan Bennett and friends -- "Beyond the Fringe."
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Anne Bancroft, Audrey Hepburn, Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton, Rita Moreno, Maggie Smith and John Gielgud all won at least one Tony, one Oscar and one Emmy. But before them all came Shirley Booth, winner of two Tonys, one Oscar and two Emmys. For the record, 18 performers have won all three awards, with only nine winning in the leading role (rather than featured) categories. Booth was the third to join that more celestial group, following Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman; she was also a star on radio, spending the early forties as the wisecracking cashier on "Duffy’s Tavern." (Booth left the series following her divorce in 1943 from Ed Gardner, creator — with Abe Burrows — and star of "Duffy’s.")

In the everlasting fame department, though, Booth easily ranks last on the group of nine, and sixteenth or seventeenth on the list of eighteen. Every once in a while somebody sees the 1952 film version of Come Back, Little Sheba and thinks, what a remarkable actress Shirley Booth is. (Booth was the first person to win a Best Actress Oscar in her film debut.) But she is most remembered nowadays, if at all, for the sitcom "Hazel." This sitcom, spun off from the cartoon character Ted Key drew for the Saturday Evening Post, had a five-year run, from 1961-1966. Sony Home Entertainment has now released Hazel: The Complete First Season, on four DVDs. (In those days, one season meant 35 episodes!) Booth plays a sassy housekeeper, controlling her "family" and anyone else who comes within range. Shirley’s letter-perfect comic sensibility and precision timing makes her Hazel a delight, although the success of the series served to minimalize her career thereafter. She returned to Broadway twice in 1970, in the Jule Styne musical Look to the Lilies and a revival of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. In each case, audiences rejected Shirley because she wasn’t Hazel. After a failed 1973 sitcom, Booth retired to Massachusetts. She died in 1992, at the age of 94.

The 1960s were a time of immense social change, as they like to say. The change in morals and mores found its way to the cinema as well. Warner Home Video has brought us the first-time-on-DVD releases of five offbeat comedies with a self-described "cult" following, several of which are well worth a look. (These five DVDs have been issued separately, not as a box set.) Combine Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters and Rod Steiger with cameo stars John Gielgud, Tab Hunter, Margaret Leighton, Roddy McDowall and the unlikely team of James Coburn and Liberace. And, Milton Berle, too. "The Loved One" (1965) — as in "the dearly departed," in this satire of the funeral business -- came from director Tony Richardson (following "Tom Jones") and screenwriters Terry Southern (following "Dr. Strangelove") and Christopher Isherwood (of "I Am a Camera"). A wildly frantic if uneven black comedy, I suppose, is how you might best describe it.

"A Fine Madness" (1966) is similarly unusual, starring Sean Connery — just then in the middle of his James Bond career -- as an offbeat poet on the loose in New York. Joanne Woodward and Jean Seberg co-star; theatre fans will be happy to see Colleen Dewhurst and Clive Revill in support. And then there’s Peter Sellers-gone-hippie in "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!" (1968). Now there’s a title for you. Julie Christie and George C. Scott star in Richard Lester’s "Petulia" (1968), with Arthur Hill, Shirley Knight and Joseph Cotton. The fifth of the group, from 1971, is the Jimmy Breslin-derived "The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight," starring Jerry Orbach and Robert De Niro among others. Fans of fine acting will want to watch the unjustly neglected Jo Van Fleet, who co-stars in both "The Gang" and "Toklas."

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With Alan Bennett back on Broadway with his deservedly lauded History Boys, theatre fans might want to look back at his humble and uproarious origins, in the legendary Beyond the Fringe [Acorn Media] (in what appears to be the final London performance in 1962, prior to the show’s trans-Atlantic transfer). This intellectual revue was written and performed by newcomers Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore. It was a sizable Broadway hit at the Golden, enjoying a 667-performance, 19-month run. Bennett, Cook, Miller and Moore, needless to say, went on to successful and notable careers; they are each and every one of them fascinating here. (For those who’d rather listen than watch, the cast original album has also just been re-released on CD [DRG 19089].) Some of the material is dated, perhaps, static to watch, and maybe even sophomoric; these were university boys, after all. But the Beyond the Fringers brought forth a new style of British humor. Where would Spamalot, and the Pythons, be without ‘em?

-- Steven Suskin, author of the recently released "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com

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